Women’s economic empowerment sustainably lifts women, families and entire communities out of poverty — but only when men get with the program, too. Men and boys have a crucial role to play in achieving gender equality by reversing deeply entrenched norms, traditions and behaviors that for too long have limited women’s opportunities and trapped families in poverty.
Programs like the Young Men Initiative are working to do just that by changing rigid masculine norms, preventing violence against women and promoting gender equality during critical stages of adolescent development.
But how much do they really alter men’s attitudes and communities’ social norms? According to Besnik Leka, CARE’s project coordinator for the Young Men Initiative in the Balkans, “It’s still early days, but we’ve seen reductions in gender-based and interpersonal violence by 25 to 30 percent and big changes in divisions of household labor.”
“One mother called us to ask, ‘What are you teaching my sons? They came home and helped with cleaning. They’re setting the table.’ We tell parents, this is what they’re supposed to do. This is how we change family dynamics.” This is how we change social norms.
Gender Inequity in the Balkans
An estimated one in three women globally will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime, which includes rape, sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence and other forms of violence that devastates people’s physical, mental and emotional health and perpetuates broader structural inequalities and cycles of poverty.
Surveys conducted in Serbia and Croatia reveal how big the problem is in the region:
- 60 percent of young men reported having made sexual comments or having touched girls without their consent
- 18.8 percent of young men say there are situations in which women deserve to be beaten
- More than two-thirds of adolescents aged 16-19 reported experiencing violent behavior from their partner; about halfsaid they’d been violent towards their partner
- 65 percent of men reported having been slapped or spanked as children, while 16 percent of men reported witnessing violence by a man against their mothers
Surveys also revealed however, that some traditional attitudes are becoming more liberal:
Engaging Men and Boys
Leka is CARE’s project coordinator for the Young Men Initiative in the Balkans. “This is a very patriarchal society with a lot of violence, especially gender-based violence, but at Young Men Initiative, we also address the interpersonal violence young men experience so they understand that patriarchy harms everyone,” Leka said. “We say that, as much as feminism needs men, men need feminism, because feminism saves men from violence too.”
The Young Men Initiative and CARE sponsor gender equality training workshops as part of the curriculums at traditionally male-dominated vocational and technical schools. “Young men face tremendous challenges but they’re also capable of tremendous growth,” Leka said. The trainings make men and boys aware of how patriarchy can harm them. Leka added that being the sole breadwinner puts a great deal of pressure on men, and that it’s better when everyone contributes to the family, including with household labor. “As more opportunities open up for women to engage in the economy we have to encourage more men to share care of the family,” he said.
While feminism has existed for decades, Leka explained that there hasn’t been much initiative for men to change. “Statistically, men cause most gender-based violence, yet women are asked to empower themselves while simultaneously being discriminated against by men and societies.”
Part of the problem, Leka says, is that men aren’t taught how to change. “It’s taboo for men to talk about certain things, like their problems and emotions. When we actually start talking with men though, about how blocking their emotions leads to stress and violence that harms them as well as women, they’re very receptive. It’s a real eye-opener to learn that young men have high suicide rates here.” Leka will ask boys and men to rate their emotions from ones they express more freely to ones the express with more difficulty. Most admit they express anger freely, but they’re afraid to show fear.
“As they work through our program, they learn that beauty comes with sharing emotions, even if they’re afraid of unmasking themselves.”
Social and Economic Inclusion
The Young Men Initiative and Leka also address women’s social and economic inclusion by working to change inheritance attitudes and laws. “Not many women inherit what their parents build. Usually it is given to the son. Even when a woman does inherit something, culturally, she’s expected to give it to her brother. She’s told that a ‘good sister’ doesn’t take stuff from her brother,” Leka explained. The problem, however, is it’s not just about the tangible inheritance. It’s about women’s economic potential.
“In Kosovo,” he explains, “all business and growth is based on banks and loans, but to get a loan, you need collateral. Men can own or inherit cars, houses and land so it’s easy for them to get loans. Without collateral though, women can’t get loans so they’re eliminated from opportunities to start or grow businesses.” Young Men Initiative is helping young men and their families understand the impact of economic progress that takes place when daughters can share inheritances. Simultaneously, CARE is working to change inheritance laws to include children of both genders.
CARE has worked in the Balkan region (Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina) since 1992, helping war-affected people develop sustainable livelihoods. Currently, CARE’s programing in the region focuses on two key areas – gender equality and social and economic inclusion.